Sunday, August 29, 2004

David Applebaum hy"d- One Year Later

Tonight at Hechal Shlomo there will be an azkara for David Applebaum and his daughter, Naava, HaShem Yiqom Damam. At the time of their murder, everyone heard about the dimensions of the tragedy of their murders (by henchmen of 'poor Sheikh Yassin'): how Naava was to have been married the next day and how David was such a brilliant and dedicated doctor who revolutionized emergency medical care in Israel (despite the best efforts of some-who just couldn't think out of the box- to block him). All of that, of course, is true (and alot more).

Like alot of people, David was my friend, a real yedid nefesh. We met in 1983, when I was living in Yerushalayim on a Lady Davis Fellowship. Our apartment was just down the street from David and Debra. I was a struggling graduate student and David was riding the ambulances for Magen David Adom/ (I think he was regional director.) What we had in common was Toras Brisk. David was a devoted talmid of Reb Ahron Soloveitchik zt"l, actually an adopted member of the family. I had just finished a decade learning under the Rov zt"l. We spoke the same language.

David was a Brisker through and through. His passion for Torah knew absolutely no bounds. His loyalty to the 'amita shel Torah' of Brisk was identical with his neshoma. He embodied the lomdus, hesed, tzni'us, and passion for Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael of his rebbe, Reb Ahron. The papers, in the hands of those less sensitive to these parts of his persona, missed all of this. However, to ignore them is to distort and to lie about him, and Hesped (as the Rov says) demands that we tell the truth. David was devoted to Qedushat HaTorah, Qedushat HaAm and Qedushat HaAretz. He actively fought for all of them.

Furthermore, David was not a doctor who just happened to be a Talmid Hochom. He was a seamless unity. His medical career was an expression of his learning and his devotion to Toras HaShem. As Reb Hayyim used to say, Er iz geven a mahmir in Piqquah Nefesh, and hence he went into Emergence medicine. He wrote extensively on Medicine and Halakha (when? B'zman shelo min haYom ve-lo min ha-Layla). He was a passionate teacher as well. A few years ago, we made a Bat Mitzva for one of my daughters. David couldn't come. Why? It conflicted with the seder he had with his son, who was learning at Kerem b'Yavneh. With David, Torah always came first, last and in the middle.

A friend of mine, a prominent Rosh Yeshiva, once wrote to me that a friendship based on Torah is a 'kesher shel kayyama.' I have never had a friend, a yedid nefesh, like David. A haver, milashon hibbur, and I know I will never see the likes of him again. You could float in and out of each other's lives for awhile, and pick up with the same intensity, intimacy and affection with which you left. There are others, I know, who feel similarly. That was part of David's greatness. The Torah is wider than the sea, and so was his soul, his sense of humor, his sincere caring.

So, tonite I'll go to be with those who so much miss this amazing yedid. Yehi Zikhro Barukh. Havl al de-Avdin ve-lo mishtakhin.

Earlier this year I wrote a longer hesped for David that appeared in HaZofe.
(You need Hebrew ISO-Logical Encoding to read it.)

Cultural History is not a Religion

In the latest issue of the Edah Journal (Iyyar 5764), Alan Brill presents us with an article entitled, Judaism in Culture: Beyond the Bifurcation of Torah and Madda. His basic argument is that the discussion of the interaction betwen Judaism and outside culture has been unhealthily restricted to 'high culture' (hoch kultur). He suggests, instead, a broader and 'thicker' approach which, in his opinion, is both more supple, applicable and correct than the (essentially) Maimonidean model that has characterized scholarly discussions of the subject to date. As a result, he sugests that we accept Geertz' (and Peter Berger's) definition of culture as a total system of meaning. Torah, in his opinion, does not engage itself with culture but is to be found within it (and constantly modified thereby).

To his credit, Brill gives the reader an excellent introduction to the dominant trends in cultural history and cultural studies that have dominated historiography for the better part of this decade. He refers the reader to some of the best scholars who have written on the subject. (Though he, surprisingly, ommitted Peter Burke's, Varieties of Cultural History). Also, he is quite correct in noting that serious changes in the discussion of Torah Umadda are required in light of the changes in assumptions regarding the nature of Culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

However, I find his presentation problematic.Cultural History and analysis are tools for describing phenomena, as Ranke might say, 'as they actually are.' Thus, Brill has given us some interesting insights into the way Orthodoxy functions. That, however, is not the goal of much of Torah UMadda writing. Here the question is how things ought to be. What type of issues should loom high on our agenda. Thus, certain types of theatre might well be part of Orthodox culture. That does not mean that this is a desireable situation! There are moments in which the 'Rabbi' and the 'Dr.' really do part company (though how they deal with that is not a simple matter). On this level, Brill's often virulent criticism of certain thinkers is both unfair and somewhat besde the point.

In addition, if we restrict our analyses to cultural historical methodology, don't we risk relativizing the Torah? Isn't there the danger that such a move will lead us pell-mell into post-modern relativism and anarchy? The implication, though I"m sure Dr. Brill was not implying this, is the acceptance of absolute autonomy in the interpretation of Torah, without the type of intellectual humility that the Rov zt"l thought was indispensible for spiritual growth and the survival of Judaism.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Religious Belief in History I

Ever since I was an undergraduate History student, working on my Senior Honors Thesis on the Disputations of Paris (1240), Barcelona (1263), and Tortosa (1413-1414) concerning the Talmud, I have maintained a deep seated respect for the power of ideas and religious in history (to the extent that many will remain loyal to them to their own economic or political detriment). I think that the unwillingness to acknowledge this fact distorts historical understanding and our evaluation of contemporary events.

These are two articles that put this quite well (whether you're a believer or not):

B. Lewis, 'The Return of Islam,' Commentary, January 1976

D. Brooks, 'Kicking the Secularist Habit,' Atlantic Monthly, February 2003,

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Shavua Tov and Welcome to My Blog

Welcome to my new Blog, 'My Obiter Dicta.' Hopefully, it will provide a means for the intelligent sharing of ideas on whatever I happen to think important. (After all, it's my blog!) I'll lay out the full parameters of what I have in mind as I sort them out myself. Meanwhile, remember, tempus fugit but e-mails and postings are forever. (I'd like to thank Ezra Butler for helping me to get this site going.)